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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Let's come back to consider the development of Britain's nuclear deterrent itself. By 1952, we had an atomic bomb. By 1957, we had a hydrogen bomb. Now, Graham Farmelo in his recent book Churchill's Bomb makes some various suggestions about the development of the weapons and why Britain wanted to push this idea forward of its own independent nuclear deterrent. Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, commissioned the programme, but Winston Churchill, coming back into power as Prime Minister in 1951, and the legacy he left through to 1955 and beyond, suggested that for Britain to be a credible force in future negotiations, it needed to be an atomic weapon state.

Skip to 1 minute and 8 secondsIt did, for example, effectively guarantee it a permanent place on the UN Security Council. Now, behind us is the first operational thermonuclear weapon, a 1-megaton Yellow Sun free-fall nuclear bomb. And we mentioned the Valiant was the aircraft that was used to test these weapons by dropping them. One of the longer running issues which comes out of the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond is the legacy of nuclear testing. Now, the effects of radiation and the terrible consequences of using an atomic bomb were known at the time that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki targets were attacked in 1945.

Skip to 2 minutes and 11 secondsSo we see America and Britain and France and the Soviet Union testing nuclear weapons, both atmospheric tests and underground tests, knowing that there is going to be a legacy from using those weapons. If you go back to, say, the Americans in 1954 and the Castle Bravo test that went wrong, the irradiation of the Lucky Dragon 5 fishing boat and the fatality there of one of the Japanese sailors suddenly started a level of debate in Japan about their status as a victim of nuclear weapons.

Skip to 3 minutes and 1 secondBritain used Pacific Islands, but it also used the mainland of Australia through areas which are largely desert with the promise that Britain would share some nuclear secrets with the Australians in return for the use of their territory. And there is a legacy - were the lands were cleared properly of the indigenous population, whether the British members of the armed forces were deliberately exposed to radiation during that time. So we have a dark period in the decisions of a number of western governments and the Soviet Union itself, as to exactly what sort of risks they're going to expose their population and the population of others by detonating nuclear weapons.

Skip to 3 minutes and 56 secondsAnd I think this is something we might want to just pause on and think back. Although only two nuclear weapons have been used in anger, before the end of the 20th century, nearly 2,050 nuclear weapons had actually been detonated, and that's something I'd like you to just think about before we move onto the next stage of the course.

The Bomb: Developing & Testing

The Bomb: Developing & Testing

When thinking about this topic, here are the questions we came up with to frame the discussion:

  1. Britain’s first atomic test came in 1952. Following Graham Farmelo’s recent book, are we right to talk about ‘Churchill’s bomb’?
  2. By 1957 Britain had a hydrogen bomb: did this keep Britain a place at the negotiating table?
  3. What has been the international relations legacy of Britain’s atomic testing programme?

A note on a date in the video

In this video, Emmett meant to date the incident to 1 March 1954, at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, under codename Operation Castle. [In no way is it becoming humiliating being corrected by my own dissertation student – Em.]

Please consider your responses to this video step, and add them to the comments below, or the following discussion.

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This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London